The American Plan

March 19, 2009 § 2 Comments

W. 47th St.

W. 47th St.

I had a lovely birthday, though things took a dive after that. Philip took me to see The American Plan, by Richard Greenberg. Originally produced in 1990, it takes place in the mid 1950’s. The story is simple, even hoary—diabolically charismatic, domineering mother, who “got the last boat out of Germany”, sad, screwy daughter. (The father, who made the family rich by inventing “something in lamps” is dead.)

The women are vacationing at their summer place in the Catskills, across the lake from a hotel full of people they mingle with but consider vulgar, and who in turn refer to the mother as “the Czarina.” The third in their party is the mother’s black maid-cum-companion, Olivia, a brilliantly understated character. The daughter complains at one point, “You never tell anything about yourself. Doesn’t it get lonely having no one to talk to?” Olivia replies, “Yes, it does. But if I told you my secrets, I’d be lonely for the things I told.”

Enter a young man. Later another one, chasing the first. The daughter tries to get away from her mother and fails. In the end, nobody’s happy. As one character says, it’s not that there’s no such thing as happiness. Rather, “Happiness exists, but only for other people.”

Mercedes Ruehl as the mother, Eva, is riveting, utterly lifelike as a larger-than-life character, with the added brio that art brings such a role; you’d never want to meet this woman but watching her on stage is pure delight. The way she bunches up her lips, sighs, how she moves her body in the exquisitely self-conscious, self-possessed manner of a middle-aged force of nature—it’s all enchanting. If theater didn’t exist, Mercedes Ruehl would have to invent it.

Lily Rabe, playing Lili, can’t compete with her but she holds her ground, which for the purposes of the story is just right. She’s too old for the character which skewed things a little—I kept thinking of her as a girl kept captive into her thirties, which during most of the play is not the case. And yet I’m not sure a young actress would have done so well. Right from the start the hold the mother has over the daughter is timeless; Lili is not just a 20 year old aching to get away. “This happens every year,” she explains to her beau, and it feels like she means, “every year for the last 100.” She has a bit of Laura in The Glass Menagerie to her; but she’s not Southern gothic crazy. She’s New York Jewish, post WWII neurotic. Her mind is not so gauzy—there’s real, terrible history in the background—and she has some spine. She seems, almost, to have a chance.

The title refers to what the hotel across the lake offers its guests, and what Lili is not allowed. When she was a little girl, her mother used to sing to her, “The Nazis haven’t found us/But darling, they’re all around us.” In fact, what’s around them is a pair of feckless young men with their own not-inconsiderable pain. The male characters are smaller and less interesting, but make a good counterpoint to the drowning power of family and war.

What makes the play such a pleasure, though, is not the story—twisty and psychologically astute as it is—but the sparkle and precision of the dialogue, and the just-right pacing. Not one scene is too short or too long (kudos to the director, David Grindley). Wit livens every exchange but never at the expense of character.

Happiness, for that evening, was mine.

Happiness=Books and Cake

March 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

Nine years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times* about electronic paper, which had not yet come on the market. I wrote as one who had been addicted to books practically since birth, and who could remember the particular feel of a paperback that has fallen in the tub and dried out: swollen, a little crunchy, needing to be read carefully. I had a fondness for books that had survived immersion similar to my appreciation for my cat when he sat still and let me bathe him. Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, and Marjorie Morningstar were a few of my victims.

But now I have a Kindle and I can’t take it in the bath. (This isn’t really a problem, since my bathtub is not a nice place.) I’m perfectly happy to read  in bed. Since I’ve only had the Kindle a few days, it makes me feel like I’m doing something important, as when I first learned to use a computer. Not the same, of course. The Kindle is easy. It’s also made me more vividly aware that in the next decade or two print newspapers and magazines will vanish, and books will exist in far fewer numbers. That makes me sad—I’ll never lose my emotional attachment to paper—but it’s okay. We learned to live without papyrus. Nobody practices penmanship anymore.The problem is figuring out how not to lose valuable digital records as technology leaps ahead.

Right now, there are a number of people preserving old hardware and transferring data to new systems. Libraries make and will make decisions on a continuing basis about what to keep, what to transfer. But history depends on the found object, the book or pamphlet that has sat unread in an attic or library for a 100 or 200 years and come out perfectly readable, if a little musty. My reflex answer is to keep printed copies of everything important, but that’s not going to be what happens. Instead, we’ll develop computers that can emulate the processes of old systems, and all data will have meta-information about its own compatibility requirements embedded. Then you’ll open, on your new machine, that old disk or file you found on your grandmother’s computer and be bored or amazed at the stuff she used to write; you’ll lift forgotten gems from her Kindle. That may not work forever, but it’s as far ahead as I can see.

Still, it’s a little scary that so many questions now are answered by: In the future, when we have these really awesome computers Not to mention what will result when the computers become sentient, which may or may not happen, but I think it will. Perhaps they’ll be like 19th century schoolteachers, feeding us only moral tales in an attempt to eradicate the beast in humanity. Perhaps they’ll whisper erotic stories in our ears as we sleep in order to stimulate the amusing spectacle of human desire. More likely they’ll write their own books, and novelists like me will grumble about the competition.

In the meantime, anything I write is going to be printed on acid-free paper, bound and stored in a cool dark place. When I get around to it, that is. And since it’s my birthday today, will somebody bake me a cake like the one in the photograph?



My Pleasure Principles

March 15, 2009 § 1 Comment

Ingres, Odalisque

Ingres, Odalisque

I expect that by now many of you have read the New York Times article, “The Pleasure Principle,” about a center in San Francisco called One Taste Urban Retreat Center*, which is dedicated to the art and practice of female orgasm. Men and women live together at the center, learning yoga and mindfulness, but the main event happens at 7 a.m. each day, when “about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation…”

7 a.m.? Don’t they know that female desire peaks in the mid-afternoon? Men are the ones who wake up with hard-ons, and women have to bat them away in order to get coffee. If I had an orgasm in the morning, why would I bother writing?

At the One Taste Center, the men and women avoid eye contact during the orgasm-meditation. It’s not about romance, or interpersonal communication. The men don’t get to climax. Part of me thinks this would be a good place for women who’ ve never had orgasms, even while masturbating, or who’ ve never masturbated, or who can’t have orgasms during sex because of shame about their body. The female body is beautiful and holy and deserves to be serviced in hushed and velvety circumstances. I  can go for that (right now would be nice). But another part of me thinks—what is this preparing you for? Sex with eunuchs?

Women need to know how to achieve orgasm and how to ask for the right stimulation, and men need to learn the techniques and be willing to employ them. Plenty of women also have things to learn about male sexuality, which is a curious and fascinating field of study. I think sex workshops are a great resource for all genders. There ought to be more of them. Maybe in high school, right after the workshop in financial management. But a live-in retreat and a focus on orgasm as ‘meditation’ takes you away from ordinary life, which is, face it, where the best sex is to be found.

I would be happy if men all responded to the clitoris the way I respond to the penis of the man I love and desire: something that turns me on to look at, touch, lick, etc. I can write glorious emails about its beauty. (I’ve tried poems but that just gets embarrassing.) If men worshipped the clitoris the way they worship breasts, all would be well. But they don’t, and I doubt we can change that without intensive genetic manipulation, which is a task best left to future generations.

Even so, I’ve had plenty of nights of sex without orgasm that I wouldn’t want to have missed. The crazy heat, the tease, the turn-on of precipitous action is quite lovely. Having one’s breasts worshipped isn’t bad either. And in general I’ll take a man I love, a man I think is sexy, a man whose cock I worship (except when he’s being, excuse me, a prick) over an Olympic gold-medal cunnilinguist any day.

In my experience the best way to motivate a man to make love better is to a) arouse him, b) make sure he cares about you, or at least wants you to stick around, and c) appeal to his competitive instincts. If you let him know your last boyfriend was a virtuoso with his tongue and hands, he’ll apply himself with vigor. If you sigh and moan when he gets it right, he’ll keep it up.

Men are funny that way. Sort of like women, except with women you have to be more indirect.

On else, you could offer this incentive (from the Times article): “a baby-faced 50-year-old Silicon Valley engineer…said that the practice of manually fixing his attention on a tiny spot of a woman’s body improves his concentration at work.”

You see? I’d prefer a man who joined the Center because he wanted access to all those naked lower bodies and then went mad with desire and had to be restrained by brawny bouncers, chained in the cellar until the wild lust had worn itself out…

I guess I’m not the meditative type.

* I’m not going to make any jokes about the name of the One Taste Urban Retreat Center. That’s what comments are for.

If Madoff is the Devil, Who’s Cheney?

March 15, 2009 § 1 Comment

Italian Torture MuseumCheney’s still distressed that Scooter Libby wasn’t pardoned. He has none of that paternal pride you’d expect—finally the little boy he made president grew a tiny ball. A useless one perhaps, but still. It’s remarkable in a man of W’s age.

I’m sure the Obama administration would be happy to work out a deal. Cheney testifies about his encyclopedia of crimes, enters a guilty plea to, well, lots of things but treason would be sufficient, and Libby gets pardoned.

I’m not suggesting we sent Cheney to Guantanomo, or an unnamed country, perhaps Poland, to be subjected to ‘alternative procedures.’ He can go to a country club prison for all I care, as long as he’s sentenced to 150 years.

Think of it: everyone from the media to the guy next to you at work is calling Bernie Madoff the devil. Stealing people’s life savings—including Elie Wiesel for God’s sake-—is abominable behavior. But I doubt any of Madoff’s victim’s would prefer this, “I remained naked for the next two weeks…. I was kept in a standing position, feet flat on the floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed with handcuffs and a chain to a metal bar running across the width of the cell. The cell was dark with no light, artificial or natural.” *

You may think the prisoner quoted above deserves what he got. I’m vengeful enough that torture for mass murderers and terrorists doesn’t upset me as much as looking at pictures of people starving. But I do think we ought to vote on this sort of thing. Maybe it’s time to re-ratify the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I know, scary. Do you trust your fellow Americans? Still…

If Cheney belongs in prison, so does Bush. He may have the Who Me? child thing down pat, but that’s no excuse when we send actual children to jail routinely. I’ve argued against prosecuting the Bushies because it would divide the country and I thought the Obama Administration needed to focus on the future. I’m still concerned about that, especially since the Republicans are doing such a good job of trashing their image. Ridicule is a powerful weapon. But I’m coming around.

Bush may be smarter than Cheney, after all. He has the sense to keep his mouth shut.

* The New York Times, Sunday, March 15

Russian torture Chair

Torture Chair

Dick Cheney


Readers and Writers

March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Edvard Munch, Girl Kindling Stove

Edvard Munch, Girl Kindling Stove

My sister bought me a Kindle for my birthday! I had just decided to stop buying books—as well as chocolate, fruit other than apples and bananas, and Perrier. I was going to do what my brother suggested and live on spaghetti and spam. Start watching more TV.

But she bought me a Kindle so I’ll have to download a few books, right? The Kindle will be perfect for all those airplane trips I can’t afford to take anymore. I have a few books on my iphone, mostly Dickens, but I hardly ever read my phone. I use it to take pictures. Which reminds me—another iphone app I’ve thought of: you rub the screen a few times and then aim it at your pile of gathered kindling and it starts a fire. It will come in handy when we’re all living in the National Parks, hiding from the reckless hordes of starving immigrants besieging our shores. Yeah, I know we’ve probably got ten years before the world’s coastal cities disappear and things get ugly. Still, it’s good to be ready.


A writer friend of mine who fought in Vietnam recently wrote a novel about that war and sent it to his agent. His agent asked him to set it in Iraq. I guess the idea is if your book is on Iraq you can go on Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose, and what could be finer than that (unless you’re Jim Cramer)?

I think he should write a novel about a squadron of young recruits being sent to Iraq, entering a time warp after the plane collides with some very old geese, and ending up in Vietnam, circa 1966.
“Man, this is some weird desert.”
“Desert’s supposed to be sand, right?”
“Probably the whole country isn’t desert. You know, like Arizona isn’t the whole U.S. This is just like Lousiana.”
“I been to Louisiana. This ain’t Louisiana.”
“How come our guys all have their guns pointed at us?”
“They sure look funny.”
“They’ve all got fucking antique guns, that’s why.”
“Fucking Bush.”

Okay, now you see it has to be a TV show. Hogan’s Heroes meets Gilligan’s Island. The present-day guys finally figure out what’s going on and try to explain that the war is over, that we lost, that there was no point to the whole mess anyway and the best idea would be to sneak over to Iraq and kill Saddam while he’s still a young thug (though others have different ideas on who should be killed).

The Vietnam-era soldiers, annoyed by being asked whether they’ve killed any babies yet and where their ear collection is, spike the newbies’ drinks with hallucinogens and send them out to find what the old soldiers keep referring to as ‘IUDs’, except for stuttering Jeremy from Fresno who has an eidetic memory for Internet porn, and is kept in camp to spend his evenings describing every video he’s ever seen in minute detail. Viewers love the way his stuttering disappears when the sex gets hot, and the way the Vietnam-era guys smack him every time he says, “iphone.”

The Gelded Age

March 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

George Grosz

George Grosz

Europeans are considering castrating sex offenders, while we can’t even manage to get the drop on the Wall Street economy-assassins.

Bernie Madoff in jail will make a lot of people feel better. But that was an easy case. He broke laws flagrantly, admitted guilt, and his victims are specific and powerful. What about the rest of them, the ones who may or may not have broken laws but nonetheless have impoverished millions of people?

Jim Cramer’s excuse on Jon Stewart last night was the CEOs he trusted, “guys I went to school with, friends,” lied to him. Stewart was scornful of this; journalists should expect to be lied to. Cramer isn’t the real villain here, though he’s a jackass. The powers-that-be at CNBC decide when and how to deploy their real financial journalists.

But what now? Americans want bonuses returned, regulation put in place, credit restored. They also want those who lied criminally to be punished, and for the rest to admit it was greed and stupidity as far above and beyond the greed and stupidity of the average person as those bonuses were above the windfall of 50 grand of new equity in your house that maybe you spent unwisely.

I understand that it all made sense if you were part of the club where everyone else was insane too. Really, I do get that, having hung out with alcoholics. But once the game is over, you’ve dried out and seen the damage, once the whole world is listening in on those private drunken conversations about your mutual brilliance…to not see what went wrong takes enormous mental effort, the kind that deforms and constricts all cognitive functioning.

Are they laughing up their sleeves? The ones who got out in time are. Many of the rest are painfully riding it out, hating their attackers. And some have brains are dribbling out their ears from the continual strain of lying to themselves. Those are the ones we need sobered out of the complex intoxication of wealth, status and risk and put to work in our universities and MBA programs, explaining to the young how it happened, what the dangers, temptations and ignored warning signs were. Nobody understands it better. Like ex gang members, they have street cred.

We don’t need their experience to run our banks. What part of it was valuable they trashed themselves. We need to tap into the fascination people feel for those who fall far, especially into the willful stupidity that intelligent kids find so hard to fathom—childhood and adolescence being places where you need your wits about you.

As for those caught in criminal lies…while they’re awaiting trial, lock them in cells with continuous video of those European doctors gelding sex offenders.

Dead Is The New Black

March 11, 2009 § 3 Comments

John Berryman, poet, who jumped from a bridge in 1972, waving goodbye

John Berryman, poet, who jumped from a bridge in 1972, waving goodbye

A guy from Philip’s company jumped out the office window yesterday. Philip didn’t quite know how to talk about it. He’d never met the man. He seemed to both of us more of a casualty of war than an individual meeting his private fate, though the two can’t be separated.

I thought perhaps he was shorting financial stocks on the day of the big rally. It’s just as likely something in his personal life deteriorated over the weekend. But there are so many suicides lately. You can’t help thinking of the people who jumped from the twin towers. Maybe one of them woke up that beautiful Tuesday planning a dive, but you kind of doubt it.

The last person I knew who killed himself that way did have bad things happening in his personal life but was also a high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic (he worked for The New York Times). My mother is certain he thought hostile forces were coming for him and he was trying to escape. Of course all suicides think hostile forces are coming for them. The only difference is that some of us realize the forces are in our minds.

No, I’m not a suicide. I’m writing this, aren’t I? The dead don’t write. At least, they don’t write to me. I’ve never even come close except for the night of my first date with my husband—I was suicidal before he asked me out, not after—but I have suicidal ideation, as the shrinks call it.

“I’m going to jump out the window!” I said to my doctor several years ago.

“Go ahead,” he replied. “We’re on the first floor.” Smug little bastard…I forgot we were in the new office…

I like that phrase, though, suicidal ideation. It rolls off the tongue. You could use it to name a child. Suicidal Ideation Jones. Or Suicidal Ideation Napalm, if you want the correct initials.

My father used the car-in-the-closed-garage method, classic for the time and place (mid-60’s suburbia) and his character type (pain-avoidant, fastidious about his person). Two  teenage brothers I knew from Texas shot themselves while on LSD, my friend Susan’s father hung himself, and the others used pills.

You know all those life insurance policies that disallow benefits in the event of suicide within three years? I bet the ones past the three-year mark are all being yanked. Check the fine print. And keep in mind that your kids would probably prefer it if you pulled them out of their too-expensive schools and organized a family bank heist gang, or drove to Cleveland and squatted in an empty house.

Suicidal ideation isn’t meant to lead out the window. It’s like those sexual fantasies you have about…you know the ones I mean…you’d never really do that. In your mind, you’re allowed the most extravagant depravity. Keep it there.

John Berryman

Dream Song 127

Again, his friend’s death made the man sit still
and freeze inside—his daughter won first price—
his wife scowled over at him—
It seemed to be Hallowe’en.
His friend’s death had been adjudged suicide,
which dangles a trail

longer than Henry’s chill, longer than his loss
and longer than the letter that he wrote
that day to the widow
to find out what the hell had happened thus.
All souls converge upon a hopeless mote
tonight, as though

the throngs of souls in hopeless pain rise up
to say they cannot care, to say they abide
whatever is to come.
My air is flung with souls which will not stop
and among them hangs a soul that has not died
and refuses to come home.

Dream Song 29

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing

Where Am I?

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